I don’t know about you, but I have never found the concept of holiness easy to grasp. Most of us don’t seem to have too much of a problem believing that God is holy: indeed, the very fact that God is holy is sometimes the stumbling block that makes us draw back from even thinking that we might be holy as well.
I remember a bible study many years ago when I was a very new and immature Christian: we were looking at the first letter of Peter and came to verse 16 of chapter 1, where Peter, quoting from Leviticus says, “Be holy for I am holy”. In my naivety I took the statement at face value and said something to the effect that I thought it meant that, somehow – I didn’t know how – but somehow we were to be holy. I was shot down by a young man who scoffed at the idea that it was possible to be holy, and in the main, I think the group were with him rather than me.
That was almost certainly when I received at least one of the seeds of doubt about Christian holiness. In the years since, God has helped me pull up the weed of unbelief that grew out of that incident, and has brought me round to a place where, once again I can take Peter’s exhortation at face value. However, that still does not mean that I find the concept easy, especially when I look at myself as in a mirror and see my spiritual reflection, warts and all.
So how have I come to hold together the fact that, as far as God is concerned, not only am I called to be holy, but in reality – no kidding or pretending – I actually am holy? It is certainly not on the basis that I am sinless, and a brief conversation with my wife will eliminate that factor from the equation straightaway. Three things have helped me to this place. The first is coming to a better understanding of what the word holiness actually means. The second is a growing understanding of just how effective the work of Christ was and is in accomplishing the will of God. The third is more experiential: I am discovering how effectively the Spirit can work in my life to renew my mind and heart in both thought and practice.
Taking those three in turn, I want to try to unpack why I am now convinced by what Peter wrote in the previous verse to the one quoted above – “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in everything you do”.
At home, we have a particular saucepan that is old, battered, encrusted with lime-scale on the inside and, in terms of looks, deserves its place at the very back of one of our cupboards. And yet it is a holy saucepan, for the simple reason that it is dedicated to one purpose and one purpose only – we use it for boiling eggs and for nothing else. The root meaning of holiness is being set apart or reserved for exclusive use for a person or purpose. Whatever our condition, God has chosen us and set us apart for himself. Our call then is to be what we are – his children, his people, his servants – and not get sidetracked into serving anything or anyone else.
The second thing centres around the fact that I am persuaded that Jesus achieved everything the Father intended through the incarnation and the cross, his resurrection, ascension and glorification. God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him (Eph. Ch. 1 v 4). One thing is very clear, God did not intend or expect this to happen by giving each of us a report card with ‘must try better’ scrawled across it in red felt tip. Holiness is impossible to achieve by trying harder. It is achieved by Christ for the Father, and gifted to us to be received by faith. Jesus became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and holiness and redemption (1 Cor. Ch. 1 v 30).
Thirdly, it works in practice. During the summer, I spent an afternoon in a swimming pool with my son Ben, my daughter in law Anna and their family. Some of us jumped off the diving board at the deep end and before long, Jethro – our two-year old grandson – began to edge along it as well. Having fitted him with armbands, Anna positioned herself in the water a yard or so away and encouraged Jethro to jump. After some hesitation, he did so, and Anna caught him. By the end of the afternoon, Anna was worn out with catching Jethro, who by now was launching himself as far out into the pool as he could. The consistent faithfulness of his mum catching him changed his attitude from hesitation to reckless abandonment.
It can take an awful lot of encouragement to get us to jump out from the limits of our own ability. But if we do so when the Spirit prompts us, we will find that the Father faithfully catches us every time. True, we will still struggle if we do it presumptuously, or for sin or self-interest, but God will pull us out, dry us down and set us back on track again.
Jethro’s older siblings could not deny he had ‘been in at the deep end’ simply because his mum had consistently helped him. Any degree of practical holiness we do achieve is always and only because the Father has enabled us. Our failures are our own responsibility, but we do not avoid them by increased self-effort but by wholehearted abandonment to the faithfulness of our Father.